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‘That was pretty cool’: Laguna Beach tests cellphone and outdoor emergency alerts

Tourists and residents strolling along Laguna Beach’s Main Beach boardwalk Wednesday afternoon heard a bell ring, followed by a man’s voice streaming from the lifeguard tower.

“This is the city of Laguna Beach testing the downtown outdoor warning system,” the voice said. “In certain emergencies, this system may be used to communicate important information.”

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The notice sounded twice from the Main Beach location as well as from loudspeakers at Heisler Park and City Hall. Laguna Beach’s emergency operations coordinator, Jordan Villwock, said the second message was to account for a power “hiccup” the first time.

“When we hit play, there was a little bit of a skipping,” he said. “That’s why we test ... to see the ins and outs. And I’m glad it came out in the test.”

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At the same time — a few minutes after 3 p.m. — an Amber alert-like test showed up on the cellphones of people within the boundaries of Laguna Beach. “Laguna Beach emergency alert test. No action required,” the message read. There also was a link to the Laguna Beach website requesting feedback about the test.

“Probably within five seconds of us pressing the ‘send’ button … the alert went out,” Villwock said. “That was pretty cool.”

It was the first test of the wireless emergency alert system since Laguna Beach last year became the first city in Orange County to access it, Villwock said. Other cities, such as Aliso Viejo — which also tested its alert Wednesday — have followed suit.

The outdoor warning system was last tested a year ago. The city used the system Feb. 14 to alert downtown business owners to put up their floodgates when a storm drenched Laguna and destroyed part of a flood wall.

Wednesday’s wireless emergency alert test included a link to the Laguna Beach website, where the city is asking for feedback.
Wednesday’s wireless emergency alert test included a link to the Laguna Beach website, where the city is asking for feedback. (Photo by Faith E. Pinho)

Abdul Almu, 53, had been in Laguna Beach for just 10 minutes when the emergency alert tests went off. Almu, his wife and three children had stepped out of their car after a three-day drive from Kansas City. He said he received the cellphone alert first and saw it was just a test. But when the loudspeakers sounded, he had a moment of panic.

“Because of the wind, I thought there was an … actual emergency,” said Almu, who was wrapped in a windbreaker to protect against Wednesday’s strong beach breeze. “But when I heard that it’s just a test … we calmed down.”

Serena Li, 29, was visiting from the eastern Chinese province of Anhui when the alerts went off. She was standing on the corner of Ocean Avenue and South Coast Highway, taking photos and videos of birds swooping over the boardwalk. When the voice came over the loudspeaker, she thought something had happened.

She had never heard an alert like it before but thought the system would be effective in a real emergency.

“The sound will ... warn you something will happen and get together,” Li said. “Better than if you don’t know anything.”

Villwock said he was happy with the tests. Of the nearly 2,700 responses to the survey in the cellphone alert, 98.5% said once-a-year testing is acceptable, he said.

Keroy Fields, 42, who has been staying in Laguna Beach for a few months, was sitting on a bench along the boardwalk, playing tunes on a recorder just before the outdoor warning sounded. He said he didn’t think it would have been very useful in a real emergency.

“I think it needs to be louder, because people along the beach … I don’t know if they would have heard it,” he said.

Villwock said the city purposely didn’t use the “intense and attention-grabbing tones” that would be used during a real emergency.

Laguna Beach has several warning systems for various levels of emergencies. In addition to the wireless emergency alert and the downtown loudspeakers, the city can use AlertOC, an Orange County system that sends messages to landline phones in case of a life-or-death emergency. The city also can ask the county to activate its Emergency Alert System to issue countywide warnings on AM and FM radio and TV.

Laguna’s community alert system gives a variety of notices — from traffic advisories to flood watches — to residents who sign up.

The city also is discussing possibly expanding the outdoor warning system to blast messages citywide.

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